Former first lady Betty Ford is renowned for her courage in revealing her own battle to recover from addiction to alcohol and prescription pills. In an effort to help others cope with addiction, she co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center in 1982. Celebrities and ordinary people have become sober at the treatment clinic. This process is especially difficult for women, as recalled in a new book by the former first lady.
The stories of six women come together in Healing and Hope: Powerful Journeys from Addiction to Recovery. They represent a cross-section of the women who have gone through the Betty Ford Center during its first twenty years: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian; single, married, divorced and widowed. According to Center psychologist Nancy Waite-O'Brien, what they have in common is a serious problem that was considered 'not important.'
"Women alcoholics are often seen as having some other problem, maybe a psychological problem, or an emotional problem. And so, it's not often diagnosed," she explains. "Families do not even see it. They maybe think that mom drinks a little too much, or she mixes the alcohol with the pills. They don't really see that as alcoholism or addiction. As a result, women do not get the help and they die more frequent than men do. Our culture looks at women alcoholics and addicts very differently than it does men. As a result of that, women feel more shame and more guilt about being alcoholic than men do."
Paula, one of the women profiled in Mrs. Ford's book, remembers feeling that shame and guilt, not just for herself, but for her family, even after she checked herself into the Betty Ford Center. "I was concerned that it would affect my husband's job. He had climbed that corporate ladder. But instead of being a stigma, people respected me and admired me for getting help," she recalls. "But I had tremendous shame and guilt because of my addiction."
Part of the shame comes from the perception of alcoholics as homeless, helpless and dangerous. According to psychologist Waite-O'Brien, when former first lady talked about her addiction, she helped change that stereotype. "What Mrs. Ford helped us understand is that addiction is an equal-opportunity illness," she says. "Anybody, no matter their socio-economic class, could become an alcoholic or addict. And that's what brought people into treatment."
The women in Mrs. Ford's book took different paths to treatment. Jacqueline, a married nurse with two young daughters, came to the Center after an arrest for drunk driving. Harriet ruined her career as a paralegal, destroyed a romantic relationship and almost committed suicide before seeking help.
For Paula, who'd gone through two unsuccessful treatment programs, it was a loving family moment. "I was isolated at home with shutters are down, phone off the hook, in my robe. I walked in the kitchen to get more ice for my vodka, and my daughter had come home," she recalls. "I looked at her and she gave me the sweetest smile, for the first time, not giving me that look of disgust and 'not again mom.' I walked over and threw my arms around her and I started to cry, and said, 'Tracey, I need help.' At that point, my husband came home and we all hugged and cried. I called the Betty Ford Center. They saved my life, as well as my family's life."
Psychologist Nancy Waite-O'Brien points out that one of the reasons the Betty Ford Center has been so successful in helping Paula and other women recover from their addiction is its emphasis on group support. "Alcoholic women often do not have much experience having other women as friends," she says. "They often do not know much about being taught or mentored by other women. So, in treatment, women helping women sets the model for long term recovery."
Years after completing treatment the Betty Ford Center, these women return to there every autumn to celebrate their sobriety and express gratitude to the place where they found the strength and tools to get and stay.